Those who do not know history are bound to repeat it.
haha, I was curious to learn about the fall of the Romain Empire so I can contrast it with the current situation.
Is America on a downward spiral??
Another classic read!
The attempt to outline a clearly articulated theory of history in Gibbon's works is not only fruitless, but also inappropriate. Gibbon did not possess a general scheme which could be applied to the events of the past and to those of the future: "he does not believe that the historian's business is to trade in solutions; history is not an answer-book. Rather it is the play of reality upon the world's stage" . According to the British historian, human existence was not subjugated to higher principles and it was not teleological, history was circumstantial. Interpreting history as the expression of progress or of providence was forcing a theory on a subject which followed no theories. The cause of this lack of governing principles was due to the fact that "the subject of history is Man" and the actions and thoughts of men are not governed by one single principle, but are often the result of circumstance and occasion: "if we have discovered any artificial ornament, any accidental circumstances, or any mixture of error and passion, it cannot appear surprising that the mankind should be the most sensibly affected by such motives as were suited to their imperfect nature"
Due to the impossibility of offering a definitive description of what Gibbon's theory of history was, it is also complex to establish a clear-cut division between theory and practice of history, since writing history was in itself doing history: "Gibbon understood like few others that it was indeed the historian who made history" .
These unpromising premises should not, nonetheless, deter us from analysing Gibbon's works. The fact that he did not possess an organic theory of history should not lead us to think that he did not believe that there are no principles which support history and history writing.
In the long work of collection of information for the composition of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Gibbon obtained an impressive amount of data from the antiquarians of the eighteenth century who compiled a very detailed set of records of the events on which Gibbon was interest to write about. The greatest weakness of these 'compilers' rested on the fact that "amongst others they have learnt to separate facts from fiction only at the cost of forgetting to distinguish between the important and the trivial" . In this respect we must try to detect the core of Gibbon's thoughts. What was important and what was not. What should be worth of being saved from the oblivion and what was not? The criterion which Gibbon chose to apply in order to decide which facts were worth of mention and description and which other were to be forgotten must be found in his particular conception of utility. Even if living in a period were the idea of Utilitarianism were flourishing and Gibbon's utility must not be considered as a dogmatic moral principle. He interpreted utility as the mean which could harmonise society making it more stable. Gibbon utility must not be viewed under a philosophical perspective, but instead more on a political level. When he claims that "the various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrates as equally useful" , he is giving a positive opinion of the pagan polytheism, since its utility overcomes the weaknesses which could derive from its falsity. Since the historian cannot investigate the intrinsic value of religion, he must estimate and judge the effects that this religion can have in the real world. For the historian therefore nothing should aprioristically described as good or bad, because these notions are morally ambiguous and very often bring with themselves a religion connotation from which the historian should keep himself distant.
In relation to utility must be viewed Gibbon's praise for progress. The latter is positively described because dispenser of utility, stability and civilisation. According to Gibbon in fact progress is the result of the pursuing of utility and the two terms can almost be overlapped. Progress is utility in act. Utility is the potentiality of progress. Progress, nonetheless, must not be given for granted since history proves that not everything which prospers will continue to do so. Gibbon is categorical in the affirmation of the necessity of progress since: "all that his human must retrograde if it does not advance" .
Indispensable to the continuity of progress is liberty. Nonetheless Gibbon's principle of freedom was not derived from natural philosophies or Lockean social contract theories. In his interpretation of liberty Gibbon displays with vehemence his political and social vision in a time of unrest and demand of institutional reform advocated in Britain by the pro-American Thomas Paine and by the even more extremist John Wilkes. In claiming that "the struggles between the patricians and the plebeians had finally established the firm and equal balance of the constitution, which united the freedom of popular assemblies with the authority and wisdom of the Senate" , Gibbon seems to support almost directly the conception of constitutional balance supported by Edmund Burke in those years. Freedom is therefore not good in itself, but, once more, it can be judged positively when creates utility, and to do that it must be restrained by order.
However, it is important to underline how the concept of utility perceived by Gibbon implies that it must be achieved in relation to our empirical world. The aim of human actions and life must be searched in the achievement of a better condition in this world. Spending our life in the research of ultra terrain happiness has no use. In this respect it appears very congruent the rejection and condemnation of neo-Platonist philosophies: "the declining age of learning and of mankind is marked however, by the rise and rapid progress of the new Platonists. By mistaking the true object of philosophy, their labours contributed much less to improve than to corrupt the human understanding. They exhausted themselves in the verbal disputes of metaphysics ... consuming their reason in these deep but unsubstantial meditations, their minds were exposed to the illusions of fancy" . Gibbon therefore despised all the speculative and deductive theories. Nothing could be considered useful if disconnected from experience.
This vision, nonetheless, triggered an even more serious problematic: the conception of utility as a parameter of judgment implied not only the condemnation of speculative philosophical doctrines, but also a complete different and jeopardising analysis of religion. How could in fact be possible on earth to reconcile supernatural religion with the empirical, scientifically and historically investigable world? Gibbon could not simply neglect such an important factor in the history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless it was also impossible for him to give any value judgment on the first principles of the Christian religion, since they were based not on rationality but on faith. He could, however, consider the impact which these unverifiable principles had on the Roman Empire and assess their utility or their harmfulness on the health of the state: "He [the historian] must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she [Christianity] contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings" .
The success of Christianity in the western world was presented as detrimental to the contemporary establishment. The structure of the Church paralleled the institutions of the state, creating a new sphere of power and division among the sovereigns. The assertion of life after death in the heaven brought human's mind to be interested not in the earthly affairs but in their conduct in function of paradise: not utility, but morality was their dogma. No less contemptuous is Gibbon towards miracles; he describes these as the fruit of human imagination, events more apt to enhance superstition rather than truth.
Even if Gibbon softens his condemnation of the effects of religion on the empire when considering the positive civilising consequences it had on the barbarians, his political judgement is negative and his criticism is evident. To the greatest part of the theologians, priests and churchmen both Protestant and Catholic, Gibbon's assessment of religion appeared as a threat to the Christian creed: "how many souls have his writings polluted! Lord, preserve others from their contagion!" Gibbon, nonetheless was not interested in these polemics, he was well-convinced that the duty of the historian was to analyse religion from a non-partisan point of view: "he had come to regard the religions of the world, including Christianity, as interesting social phenomena to be explained by a study of their origins and history. He was a historian and a scholar, not a believer" .
Gibbon's estimation of religion seems therefore to support the idea that utility is the parameter he utilised to discredit or support men, religions, institutions concepts and moral theories. In this respect we must therefore consider Gibbon interpretation of history. History should not just be interesting, it must also be useful and in order to be useful it must obviously educate humans. Two features are essentials to make history useful and educative: history must be popular and it must have reference and relevance to the present.
Gibbon in fact had learnt from the érudites that history should not just be correct, but it must also be read. There was no-sense in writing something for no one: "he wanted his books to be read by educated people everywhere" . History should not be relegated to be a privileged subject for few scholars and priests closed in monasteries and libraries to which the access was the denied to the greater public. History could be useful only if it was known and in order to be known it must be interesting and pleasant. History must put the reader in connection with the subject: "one noteworthy feature of the Decline and Fall is its masterly capacity to converse with the public" . Gibbon achieves this aim through an accurate choice of the objects which must be represented but even more fundamentally with his style. History should be disguised as literature. He was certainly influenced in his style by the study of the belles lettres which left a mark in his narrative techniques in almost poetic representation of facts. The use of adjectives, the wording of sentences, the use of parallels, similes and rhetoric figures, the use of the direct speech were all devices more indebted to literature rather than scientific language. It is not easy to choose an example which best represents Gibbon's style since every sentence possesses a particular resonance and weight. Nonetheless we could notice how remarkable is the effect of the use of this climax in this sentence in relation to the conquest of Britain: "After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke" . There is a sense of solemnity and contempt in the way the historian writes this sentence and the attention seems to be more on the literary outcome rather than to the faithful representation of events.
However in order to be useful history must be not only interesting and popular, it must also show an intimate connection with the present. There is in fact no utility in the study of a subject which has no power to influence the present. The duty of the historian is therefore to bring history back to present, to make the history of the past history of the present: history must be a contemporary history. In order to put the past in connection to the present Gibbon utilises some ingenious narrative and stylistic devices. It has been widely documented how the copious number of footnotes with which he corroborates his claims, are also important to put the reader in contact with the writing of history and with the debates on a certain problem. In this way the reader is constantly brought back to the process of making history persecuted by the historian. The references connect the past to the present and, interrupting the normal course of the narration, lead the reader to reflect on the relations and analogies of contemporary and pasted times. Often the reference to the present times becomes even explicit: "philosophy, with the study of experience, has at length banished the study of alchemy; and the present age, however desirous of riches, is content to seek them by the humbler means of commerce and industry" . Moreover Gibbon associate himself with the public at the moment of judging and establishing the past as if author and reader were unanimously viewing history from the same point of view: "So strong and uniform is the current of popular passions, that we might almost venture, from very scanty materials, to relate the particulars of this war" .
Gibbon has nonetheless another way of connecting ages together. He did not believe in any superior scheme based on providence, progress or morality and denied therefore any cyclicity and with that historical repetition, he still believed that history could see analogies between different époques and characters. He therefore puts Charles V and Diocletianus one next to the other. He also underlines how Galerius was willing to imitate Alexander: this was sufficient to create a connection between the two . Joseph Ward Swaine has convincingly shown how the volumes of Gibbonian History are in fact an attempt to describe metaphorically the situation of Britain in the eighteenth century. Nonetheless it is important to underline that a too stringent conception of this parallelism can result fallacious and limitative in the description of Gibbon's history. Swaine theorise the possibility that in describing the fall of the empire in the West, Gibbon was in fact depicting the loss of America for the British Empire and that the way to solve this problem and maintain the strength was through a focus on the East: the Indies.
Even if appealing this interpretation misrepresents the image Gibbon had of history. Gibbon's in fact interpreted the use of history not just as useful to his present, but also to the future generations. History was useful because it could be always useful, because it could always go beyond the restrict moment of the life of a generation. The use of history rested in capability of being always modern, of surviving time and customs. But the message of utility veiled another more important and profound theme: irony. Utility in fact was an artificial creation which Gibbon exploited in order to create a framework to judge historical actions. The use of utility rested nonetheless in considering it useful, it was conviction that utility was worth pursuing which actually made it useful to practise. When he says that the "soldier considered that whatever was of no use could not possibly be of any value", he is not supporting the view that things have intrinsic value, he is saying that things have value as long as we consider them valuable. Utility itself was not an exception. There was no superior truth, no intrinsic meaning in things. There was only the meaning man gave to them. The answer and the implication with this vision had could not be described in any other way but with irony. Sentences and affirmation appear contradictory and concepts are often, voluntarily confused. Two examples can be proved useful in this respect. Gibbon claims that "in the primitive church, the influence of church was very powerfully strengthened by an opinion, which, however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity, has not found agreeable to experience". There is an obvious ironical discrepancy between the use of the term truth and opinion, how can truth be strengthened by opinion? Truth should be self-evident and could not find any support from opinion.
Moreover, as Roy Porter observed, Gibbon opens his book with a high controversial image, with Rome at the apex of its greatness and with its inhabitants who "enjoyed or abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence. The Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government" . From this passage it is possible to deduce that in Rome nothing was as it appeared. The apparently idyllic image is depicted as sort of caricature: "investigating closely, the passage dissolves into a sea of doubt" . Irony is the vehicle which Gibbon uses to display the meaninglessness of life. Truth is unachievable; the only message which the historian can with deliver is uncertainty. This can be accepted by intellectuals, but is detrimental to the majority: "a state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude, that if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision" .
It is evident how this view is antithetical to Plato's myth of the cave. The pleasing vision, the world of the ideas, is not the truthful representation of reality, but is the exact opposite. According to Gibbon, speculation leads to superstition. The duty of the historian is to describe the effects to which this speculation leads and to keep human mind concentrated in the empirical world. In the empirical world, nonetheless, the historian cannot display the right solution or the path to follow. He can indicate some provisory answer, but he must be aware they will not last forever. The 'melancholy duty of the historian' is to show the uncertainty and volatility of human life and society. It is only showing these perpetual weaknesses that the historian will manage to make himself and his works live throughout the centuries....Continua